How I Met My Cousin
I have a close friend who is a US migrant. One of our favourite pastimes is to argue over the superiority of Europe to North America and vice versa. We dig up articles, send each other reports and news articles and butt heads – sometimes literally – over opinions. Keeping up with the tradition, some months ago he sent me an article which states, somewhat erroneously, that the German Ethics Council wanted to decriminalise incest.
Now, I am nothing if not argumentative. I stated that the committee had a point and that people should be allowed to have full control over their sexuality as long as they do not hurt anyone and have consenting adult partners. And if the issue of birth defects was raised – well, then we might as well screen for people with genetic diseases, like Huntington’s, and low IQs and prevent them from procreating. And wouldn’t that be just a lovely trip down the eugenics memory lane?
While this was an argument with one leg at best, it got me thinking. Why aren’t people allowed to be intimate with whoever they want? Why does the mere thought of consanguineous sexual relations turn our stomach? And more importantly, why does this particular taboo have limits that seem to vary from region to region?
Take cannibalism for example. It’s a complete taboo in most of the civilised world (even if it might not be a criminal act in itself). There is no grey area. There is no body part that is more forbidden than the others in any part of the world. But that is not the case with taboo of sex between relatives. Some countries have banned any and all form of inter-familial marriage. However, first cousin marriages are definitely legal in a substantial area of the world. I would know, my parents are first cousins.
This chart portrays the legal status of first cousin marriages in the world.
When I arrived at Jacobs, I quickly learned that this was a fact best not mentioned unless I wanted to answer some seriously uncomfortable questions. This, despite the fact, that it is legal to marry your first cousin in all of Europe*, Canada, Mexico and 26 states of the United States of America – not counting all the majority Muslim countries. People reacted as though I had mentioned something very, very uncomfortable and unfathomable for them. And then there were the inevitable jokes regarding my intelligence – which have now gotten old, so cut it out! I’m special, okay? My mommy says so!
If the lawmakers in a lot of developed nations have deemed first cousin marriage a morally and legally permissible act – why is there still an “ick” factor involved? Why do people immediately respond with: “But my cousins are like my siblings! I could never think about them in that way!”
Well, first of all – calm down. I’m not asking you to marry your cousin. Secondly, I’m not sure if you think if 80% of the marriages in the past were between some kinds of sibling-fetishists. Because for all our sakes, I sincerely hope they weren’t. No, there must be some kind of criteria that we need to meet in order to distinguish between the “ugh, what an ass!” and “ooh, what an ass!” cousin variety.
From making people very uncomfortable, I have identified three factors that could possibly account for the difference in reactions.
Islam prohibits the universally acclaimed joys of bacon and whiskey. Hinduism forbids the truly heavenly consumption of steaks. Christianity prefers its weekends lazy. And all religions forbid you from marrying your mother. This taboo dates as far back as the ancient Greeks where Oedipus was cursed by the gods for marrying his mother Jocasta, even though he did it unknowingly.
When we take a closer look at major religions, they all allow first cousin marriages. Islam specifies the women who are forbidden in the Quran, Leviticus specifies the same restrictions for Christians, and Judaism has similar restrictions. None of these restrictions mention first cousins.
Yet people from all faiths (and none) have expressed a severe discomfort with the idea. So, religion is not as impressive a factor as one would think.
As anyone who has read The Selfish Gene knows, the gene is selfish. It does whatever it needs to, in order to propagate itself. Wouldn’t it make sense then, for people to be attracted to others who share their genes thus creating a race of super inbred babies?
And before you roll your eyes out of your head – this is a documented phenomenon. Genetic Sexual Attraction (GSA) is claimed to exist between blood relatives who meet each other as adults. In certain cases, unknowing of the relation between them, they have gone on to build relationships and marriages.
Then why isn’t the entire world one large, literal family? Theoretically that is due to a phenomenon called the Westermarck Effect. The premise behind this effect states that in order to reduce the risk of inbreeding, children develop a natural sexual immunity to people they grow up around. This includes parents, siblings, and relatives- including first cousins.
And now we see some criteria developing. The people who express shock at first-cousin marriages are not close-minded; they are reacting based on naturally developed instincts. And the people who would cheerfully marry their cousins are not “weird”, but merely reacting on their naturally developed instincts.
But this still doesn’t give us the full picture. Not all families are close-knit sweaters of love and childhood memories. And people from those families would still not consider first-cousin marriages to be normal. This leads me to the third point:
For me, this is the cement that holds the two factors above together. If you grow up in a family/society/country where it is common, even preferred, to marry your cousin – why would this bother you? Combine it with religious and legal freedom to do so and add in your selfish genes and you have a ready-made batter for cousin-spouse pancakes.
In the past, the practise of marrying within the family developed as a way of ensuring property security. Farmable land would stay in the family; marriage would add another strong bond to existing ties; it was all about strength within the family, within the community.
In Muslim Asian cultures today, where arranged marriages are prevalent, it can actually be considered rude not to marry a cousin. It can, and quite often is, interpreted as not considering your cousins good enough for yourself. Inter-cousin marriage is still used to foster and maintain strong ties within the family.
Now that we have some idea of why inter-cousin marriages work for some and not for others, it is time to address the elephant of genetic complications. Even if we now realise what motivates people to take such a step, aren’t they better off not doing so? Why would they criminally endanger children in this manner?
First cousins share a fourth-degree level of relationship, which means they have a genetic overlap of 12.5%. What does this mean for babies? In unrelated parents, the chances of genetic defects in the children are 3% – for first cousins this chance is around 6%. You can look at it any way; either that the risk has doubled for the children- or that the chances of having a healthy baby are still more than 94%. To put it into perspective, this is the same increase in risk when the age of the birth mother increases from 30s to her 40s.
Cousin marriage does not deserve the juvenile reaction it frequently gets. Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Mary are just a few among the many famous cousin couples. We are slowly moving towards an age of sexual acceptance, and I hope one day we can all realise that as long as nobody is endangered, what one does with their private parts is just that – private.
Omaina gets very flustered when asked to describe herself and will usually end up making a joke that’s funnier in her head. This is why she prefers to stay at home with a book. Enthusiastic traveler and cook.
Photo credit: listverse.com